Joanne Harris was rereading Carrie by Stephen King during lockdown when she got the inspiration for her new novel, Broken Light. The novelist had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and King’s horror story was all her “chemo-brain” could cope with, she says on a video call from her home in Yorkshire. The story of a girl who gets telekinetic powers at puberty, Carrie was a favourite for Harris growing up. “Of course it was!” she exclaims. “It’s all about the drama of adolescence and the horror of having a changing body that does unpredictable stuff.”
Reading it again in her 50s she was struck by the idea: “What if Carrie had lived and her powers had kicked in at menopause instead? Nobody wants to give superpowers to a teenager, because of course they’re going to burn everything down.” And so she created Bernie Moon, who in middle age discovers she is able to inhabit other people’s minds and set them on a different course – predatory men become a particular target. “It’s menopausal Carrie,” she says gleefully. She started writing when she was ill (the effects of chemotherapy “were like the menopause but worse,” she says) and didn’t stop. She got the all-clear this Christmas: “So I thought: ‘OK, I’m feeling good about this.’”
Broken Light, published last month, is the latest in a run of novels to take on the menopause. Fran Littlewood’s debut, Amazing Grace Adams, which follows a 45-year-old woman on the rampage in north London, was published to much excitement at the beginning of the year. The Change by Kirsten Miller, a magical realist thriller about three midlife women who discover that they have developed special powers, was a big hit last year (part of a trend Guardian critic Laura Wilson dubbed “hot-flush noir”). And Marian Keyes, who has long been “banging the drum for the idea that we don’t all wither when we are 37”, is in the middle of writing a new novel with the working title Old Dog, New Tricks, about a 49-year-old woman who has to come off HRT when she returns from New York to Ireland. In Ireland “they’re like: ‘Oh, a lady problem. No, no, they don’t exist. You’ll be grand. Just get on with it!’” she jokes when I meet her. Though she clarifies: “It is not a novel about menopause, it is simply the life of a woman who is perimenopausal and so menopause is part of the story.”
The menopause has been big news in nonfiction publishing for a while now. In the last few years, self‑help sections in bookshops have acquired whole shelves of titles promising the secret to a happy menopause, by medical experts as well as well-known names including Davina McCall, Mariella Frostrup, Lorraine Candy, whose book What’s Wrong With Me? was published this month, and Karen Arthur, who runs the Menopause Whilst Black podcast. There are even special colouring books to calm you down. And breathe! But fiction has been slow to join the party.
Back in 1999 when she published her multimillion-selling novel Chocolate, Harris was told that it wouldn’t work because there were far too many old people in it. “That basically a book needs to be sexy. And it has to be young people having sex, not old people just being unsightly,” she says now. “Why do we always have to hear about the princesses? Why do we not get to hear more about the wicked witches and the stepmothers because that’s what the princesses will grow into eventually?”
These new novels dare to imagine the lives of women at the point where they have crossed into the abyss of middle age. When, as Victoria Smith puts it in her blistering polemic Hags, also published this year, they are dealing with “the loss of the Fs that matter most to the patriarchy: fertility, femininity, fuckability”.
Hags focuses on the fate of generation X feminists – those of us who were sold the Wonderbra as an uplifting alternative to second-wave bra-burning. It opens with that memorable line from the original bunny boiler, the Medusa-haired Glenn Close in the 1980s film Fatal Attraction, newly adapted for TV: “I’m not going to be ignored.” It is a line that echoes through these new novels.
“I think we’ve become more confident in realising that the world was constructed by men to suit men,” Keyes says. “If men had the menopause they would be given 10 years off work, from the ages of 45 to 55, on full pay. And then once they had transitioned into the Great Wise Age there would be a massive party and they would be revered. Instead we are mocked.”
Novelist Kirsten Miller worked as a top advertising strategist until her mid-40s, when she found herself unable to land a job for the first time. “Oh, I’ve aged out of advertising,” she realised. “I was very, very good at it. And it really pissed me off.” She channeled her anger into writing The Change, taking on the hardest sell of her career: rebranding the menopause. “It is still very much surrounded by secrecy and shame,” Miller says from New York, where she lives. “I knew all of these brilliant, fabulous women who were beginning to reach the same stage that I was reaching, and they were whispering about the stuff that was happening to them. I kept thinking, ‘Why are we doing this? Why is there this shame around a transition that literally half of humankind goes through?’”
Miller had already written a series of children’s books called Kiki Strikes, about six delinquent Girl Scouts who discover a hidden city underneath Manhattan, setting out to catch the moment when a girl goes from being “an awesome little badass” to losing her confidence with puberty, she says. “I wrote those books for my 12-year-old self, and I wrote The Change for my 48-year-old self.”
I wanted a comic novel with the perimenopausal woman as an action hero
A former journalist, Fran Littlewood became a first-time author at 50 with Amazing Grace Adams. The novel follows Grace over the course of one long hot summer’s day (“a sort of metaphor for the menopause”) on her quest to deliver a birthday cake to her estranged 16-year‑old daughter, during which she gets increasingly bloodied and broken. “I wanted to write a comic novel with the perimenopausal woman as an action hero,” she explains on a video call from one of her daughters’ bedrooms. “But as I was writing, I realised it was a kind of a manifestation of my simmering rage at the representation, or the lack of representation, of midlife women.”
All these writers have great fun subverting the cliches of menopausal women – invisibility, rage and hot flushes – transforming them, in Miller and Harris’s case almost literally, into superpowers. “I wanted to take these things that are perceived as weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” Miller explains. “There are no spells, there are no sparkly things going on – it’s just the powers that I believe women gain as they grow older.” And so her character Jo is able to channel her hot flushes into formidable physical strength; Nessa, whose life has got very quiet since her children left, is able to hear the dead. “There is something about reaching a certain age and being comfortable with silence and sort of listening for that voice inside of you,” Miller says. Former advertising high-flier Harriet, who has let her previously immaculately maintained appearance and garden go wild, is able to harness nature itself. She has the greatest gift of all: “She could not give a shit what anybody else thinks.”
Traditionally, in literary terms, women over the age of 35 were either benign windbags (Austen’s Mrs Bennet, Miss Bates), miserable and put upon (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Ramsey) or so crazy they were likely to set the house on fire (Miss Havisham, the first Mrs Rochester). There has been no shortage of richly credible middle-aged heroines in recent years – Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Maria Semple’s Bernadette Fox or any number of Anne Tyler characters, for starters. But there has been a peculiar silence on the subject of the menopause itself. You could write anything about women’s bodies – from sex to gynaecological examinations – so long as those bodies were young, it would seem.
There is no such squeamishness in these novels, which contain as much blood as the grisliest thrillers, and include so many hot flushes the pages are almost on fire. And this is part of the point.
King’s Carrie is terrified when she gets her first period in the school showers because her religious mother won’t talk about anything to do with sex. Nearly 50 years later, grown women are still petrified they might be dying because no one has told them about the endless and often alarming symptoms of perimenopause (apart from those oh-so-funny hot flushes and mood swings, obviously). When she went through the menopause around 10 years ago, Harris had “no idea” what was happening. She went to the doctor who did some blood tests and said: “Oh, yes, you’re menopausal. It’ll pass.” “The one thing he wanted to know was if I had a low libido,” she says. “I’m telling you that I’m literally unable to climb a flight of stairs, and you’re asking me if I’m still having sexy time?”
In a recent short story by American comic writer Katherine Heiny, a woman gives her husband a printed checklist of the 34 symptoms of perimenopause: “irritability, lack of libido, hot flashes, mood swings, headaches, constipation, gum problems, tingling extremities, fatigue, dizziness, burning tongue … She had checked every single box except incontinence. Two days later, she asked him for the list back and checked the incontinence box too.”
The same checklist appears in Amazing Grace Adams. At first Littlewood worried about becoming a sort of “poster girl of the menopause” – but as someone who had suffered with a severe form of premenstrual syndrome for years and whose mother experienced psychotic episodes during this time, she felt a duty to tell it as it is. “The itchy vagina was the hill I would die on,” she laughs. “If we can write this and illuminate this, the hope is that things will be better for our daughters.”
The Change doesn’t hold back on the gory details either. “I cannot tell you how many women have come up to me and said: ‘I have had this problem, I thought I was dying,’” Miller says of the descriptions of Jo’s extremely heavy periods.
“The menopause wasn’t talked about because nobody cared,” Keyes says. “It coincides with the end of the viability of the woman. Why would we bother taking care of these people who are now useless?” Keyes, who turns 60 this year, had a breakdown when she was 46, that she now thinks coincided with the beginning of the menopause. “I know this sounds melodramatic, but I feel lucky to be alive. I was suicidal for a full 18 months,” she says now. Although HRT was literally a lifesaver, she was severely depressed for four years, an experience she wrote about – and even made funny – in her 2012 novel The Mystery of Mercy Close. “It’s different for everyone, but for many women it will impact us in really shocking ways. It’s women themselves who have said, ‘Hold on a minute. I’m suffering. You’ve got to help me here.’”
Ever the strategist, Miller puts this new outpouring down to socioeconomics. “We are the most powerful generation of women to reach menopause in the history of humankind,” she says. “Women over 40 make up 25% of the population of adults in America. This is a huge potential market that’s been completely neglected and ignored. Just from a business standpoint, it’s a smart step.” In publishing terms, as is well known, women buy far more novels than men, and they don’t stop reading once they hit 40.
If men had the menopause, they would be given 10 years off work
Just don’t call it “meno lit”, begs Sam Baker, author of the 2020 menopause memoir The Shift and presenter of a highly successful podcast of the same name. “It’s just a way of saying chick lit with wrinkles.” These books don’t need to be put in a category of their own, she argues. “I just want to see more middle-aged-plus women and their concerns taking centre stage in fiction, just as I want to see them centred in real life.” She goes on to mention favourites including Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Dana Spiotta’s Wayward and Catherine Newman’s We All Want Impossible Things.
Smith speaks for all the writers here when she acknowledges in the introduction to Hags that her experience of being a middle-aged woman is significantly affected by the fact that she is white, middle class and heterosexual – although not all the characters are. In the pipeline for this year are two anthologies of personal essays, Black and Menopausal, and Bloody Hell! And Other Stories edited by Mona Eltahawy, from crowdfunding publisher Unbound, which promise to broaden the conversation with contributions from writers from a wide range of backgrounds.
Harris attributes this willingness to speak out and share stories that have been hidden for so long to the legacy of the #MeToo movement. “It is a protest from women saying, ‘We are not going to be what you want us to be any more,” she says. “We are going to be ourselves. We come in all shapes and sizes, and we come in different colours. We come in different sexualities and different levels of queerness. We come in different ages. And some of us do not conform to what you think of as fuckable. And that’s fine, because actually, that’s not what we’re here for.”